The visitors’ locker room was downstairs, away from the court. You could hear the bedlam down the hall. The season was over, Holy Family just missing the league playoffs. But …
It had ended on the craziest note you could conjure up. Miracle on Henry Avenue.
The clock at Jefferson University had said 0.4 seconds — that’s 4/10ths of a second. Holy Family down by a point, needing to go the length of the court.
“That allows for a catch-and-shoot,’’ Holy Family coach Ryan Haigh said he was told by a referee. “Perfect,’’ Haigh responded.
Like every team, Holy Family had practiced a full-court play. But 0.4 of a second? That play wasn’t going to work. Haigh started to draw up a play in the timeout. Eric Esposito, a sophomore from Conwell-Egan, is usually the inbounder. He used to be a pitcher. “I am not inbounding this ball,’’ Esposito remembered saying.
“He kind of rolled his eyes,’’ Haigh said. “I said, ‘Scratch that.’ “
“It was 100% ad-lib,’’ Esposito said. “We had never practiced that play once.”
Freshman Jake McGonigle, from Wildwood Catholic, would throw it in. It made sense to have Esposito go chase the ball, try to get a shot off. “He’s our most athletic guy — it’s not even close,’’ Haigh said.
“A lot of times when we stretch, Jake and I will throw deep balls,’’ Esposito said of McGonigle, who is from Ocean City. “I knew he could pass it long.”
“I saw Eric kind of on a fly route,’’ McGonigle said. “I thought I threw it out of bounds.”
Nope, perfect. Esposito had started in the backcourt by the right sideline, then started running diagonally across the court. He threw up his arm just before halfcourt -- the yo, I’m open sign -- then took maybe five steps past halfcourt.
“I think the pass was more impressive than the shot,’’ Haigh said.
The shot was impressive, too. So were the catch and release, Esposito taking it over his shoulder so he didn’t have to turn, getting rid of it as soon as he got it, nailing maybe a 23-footer from right in front of Holy Family’s bench. When it hit the net, would it count? Haigh looked across the court, saw a referee signal good.
“I knew it was good,’’ Esposito said. “I knew it was out of my hands before the buzzer.”
“Great pass, great shot,’’ said Herb Magee, whose Jefferson team had been undefeated in the league right until that last 0.4 of a second.
“The refs didn’t say anything,’’ Esposito said. “They got out of there.”
In Division II, there is no going to the monitor to check the replays over and over, slowing things down to see if the shot counts. There is no monitor. What the refs say, that’s it.
Magee’s only issue was a big one. No problem with the last shot being good. His argument is that there shouldn’t have been a last shot because Jefferson had missed a free throw and Holy Family had rebounded and the buzzer had gone off and the teams had started to line up to shake hands but the refs huddled and decided a Holy Family player had called a timeout in time and then they decided to put those 4/10ths of a second back on the clock.
There had been 0.9 of a second left when the free throw was missed.
“There’s no monitor,’’ Magee said. “You can’t put time back when there’s nothing to judge. … Now I’ve got an argument I can’t win.”
Again, Magee had zero issue with the last play counting, once the last play was going to count. His team, ranked eighth nationally in Division II going into the game, keeps going, starting with a home game Tuesday against Felician in the quarterfinals of the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference Tournament. If it survives that one, there will be more games this weekend in the CACC playoffs, semis and possibly finals at the University of Sciences. After that, Jefferson already is assured of a spot in the NCAA playoffs.
For Holy Family, this was the 10th win of the season. A tough season, Haigh taking over as first-year head coach. There had been an eight-game losing streak.
“Seeing everyone so happy,’’ Esposito said of the postgame bedlam. “I’ve never seen Coach Haigh so happy in my life.”
Previous career highlight? Esposito remembers this crazy game in fourth grade when he was at Our Lady of Grace in Penndel, hitting some free throws, getting a steal, hitting a fadeaway three from the corner for the win. McGonigle said he once hit a half-court buzzer-beater for a win in eighth grade at Upper Township Middle School.
Yeah, this was bigger. I had shown up to see Magee’s team in action, not even realizing Holy Family was the opponent until walking in the gym, and had taken a video — the team surrounded a phone in the locker room and watched it — and Esposito saw he later got tagged by Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams on Twitter, among other people who had seen the video. The Holy Family guys were headed in for a 6ABC interview Monday. It hadn’t made the ESPN SportsCenter top-10 plays yet, but man, it should have.
“We’ll see you in the playoffs,’’ a Jefferson fan yelled at Esposito right afterward.
“We’re not going,’’ he yelled back.
Beating Jefferson obviously added to the whole thing for Holy Family. Magee is the only Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer active in this area. His team is the gold standard. Esposito said you can’t really call it a rivalry since Jefferson had gotten the best of it.
“They’re the cream of the crop,’’ Esposito said. “They’re like the perfect golden child.”
"That guy’s won 1,110 more games than I have,'' Haigh said. “But things happen.”
Esposito knew all about Herb Magee’s reputation as not just a college coach, but also as a shooting coach.
“When I was younger, about 10, I went to Herb Magee’s basketball camp,’’ Esposito said. “He really turned my shot into what it was.”
Not that Esposito, who had 21 points in the game, used his regular form for the last shot. He had made four other three-pointers.
How did he celebrate?
“I didn’t do anything too crazy,’’ Esposito said. “Ate Japanese food and watched Breaking Bad with my girlfriend and a couple of other friends.”